Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Sumo in Fukuoka

Posted in Uncategorized by bourdaghs on the November 27th, 2010

Everyone was looking forward to the current sumo tournament in Fukuoka. Indeed, it’s turned out to be one of the most exciting basho we’ve had in years — but not for the reasons we anticipated. Before it began, all eyes were on the lone yokozuna Hakuho, who had not lost a match since January and who was therefore on track to break legendary Futabayama’s all-time record of 69 consecutive wins (set back in 1939) on day 8.

The breathless anticipation deflated rather suddenly when Kisenosato knocked off Hakuho on just the second day of the tournament, ending the winning streak at 63. That’s still the longest winning streak in sumo in 70+ years, if it’s any consolation.

But after that disappointment it quickly became apparent that we were in for an exciting tournament. For the first time in ages we could even pretend that the outcome was in doubt (yes, yes, I know that Hakuho will come back and win the championship in the end, but we can at least pretend that it’s not a done deal). Ozeki Kaio has apparently discovered the fountain of youth; after stumbling to the brink of retirement several times in the last few years, the 38-year-old veteran has wrestled brilliantly, moving quickly and with a power not seen from him in recent memory. He is now 11-3 and out of the title chase, but just a couple of days ago he was tied for the lead at 11-1, delighting his hometown fans in Fukuoka.

Ozeki Baruto also looks good, though he too has now faltered to an 11-3 mark. Giant-killer Kisenosato has turned in an impressive 10-4 record from the tough east maegashira 1 slot. Most impressive of all has been west maegashira 9 Toyonoshima, who is tied with Hakuho at 13-1 for the lead with just one day to go. If Toyonoshima wins his final match tomorrow (lucky him: his opponent will be Kisenosato) and if Hakuho gets the expected win against ozeki Kotooshu (a lackluster 8-6 so far), we’ll actually have a play-off match to decide the Emperor’s Cup title. Who would of thunk it?

In fantasy sumo I’ve scraped along to a 7-7 record. Tomorrow’s results will decide if I move up or down in the banzuke rankings for the New Year’s tournament in January. Either way, it’s been an exhilarating ride and it’s reminded me all over again of how much I love this sport.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Suicide Commandos

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 23rd, 2010

I’ve just stumbled across this very nice video clip introducing the Suicide Commandos, the godfathers of the Twin Cities musical scene that produced the Replacements, Husker Du (add an umlaut or two there), Soul Asylum, Trip Shakespeare, Golden Smog, the Jayhawks, and eight dozen other great bands you’ve never heard of. The clip combines archival footage with interviews and concert footage from the reunion gig they did earlier this year as part of a tribute to the late Bruce Allen, guitarist for the Suburbs (another fabulous band from the scene).

In 1977-8 (which is to say, my junior year in high school), the Commandos defined cool in Minnesota. I only got to see them play a couple of times in their heyday, because I was too young to get into the Longhorn and the other clubs around town, but I wore out my copies of their records. They really laid down the cultural pattern that other Twin Cities bands would follow: they insisted on fun, on an ethical rejection of pretension (no mohawks or safety pins allowed!), and on an appreciation of the revolutionary potential of pop. They even covered the Monkees’ “She,” except the line “why am I missing her/I should be kissing her” morphed into a commentary on the Nixon/Ford national security bureaucracy: “why am I Schlesinger/I should be Kissinger.”

“Complicated Fun,” the last song the band released (and later a Target TV commercial jingle), is one of the great unknown rock anthems of our time.

Find more artists like The Suicide Commandos at Myspace Music

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Posted in Books,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 21st, 2010

One of the things on my to-do list this past week was to compose a blurb for a forthcoming book on modern Japanese literature. I get asked to do this once or twice a year; often it is for a title that I’ve already reviewed as an external referee, meaning that I’m already quite familiar with the work. I’ve even had a publisher approach me once for permission to use a blurb they had composed by patching together key phrases from my referee’s report. In case you were wondering, we don’t get paid for supplying blurbs, though the publisher usually sends us a free copy of the book once it appears.

There’s an art to writing a good blurb. If you’re too effusive, you lose credibility and might even offend the potential reader you are trying to charm. I remember many years ago reading a blurb on a study of Japanese literature that asserted ‘there is no comparable study in any language.’ The arrogance of this pissed me off: had the reviewer really read all the books on Japanese literature published in Polish, for example, or Swahili? Through no fault of the book’s author, I acquired an unfavorable gut feeling toward the work.

Another time, I was thinking about buying one of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. When I picked up the thick paperback at a bookstore, a blurb on the cover proclaimed it “a 747 of a novel.” I immediately put the book back down and left the store. I hate 747’s. Why would I want to read something that would remind me of stale air, crying babies, bad food, smelly bathrooms, and crabby flight attendants?

In other words, it’s important to find the appropriate tone. Sometimes, I think I get it right — like here, for example, or here and here. The one I submitted this past week was only so-so, I’m afraid.

What’s the worst experience you’ve had with a blurb–either writing or reading it? Or, conversely, has a blurb ever single-handedly sold you on a book? I’d love to hear your stories on this: comments, please.

Stew & The Negro Problem at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 14th, 2010

Last night we headed down to the Museum of Contemporary Art for a concert by Stew and The Negro Problem. Stew is best known for his recent Broadway musical, “Passing Strange,” but I’ve been a fan for more than a decade, ever since I bought a copy of the album Joys and Concerns (1999) after reading a rave review in the L.A. Weekly. I’ve followed his career closely since then, but this was the first time I’d seen him and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald perform live.

It was a terrific, witty show — but also unexpectedly somber. The light and lush tone that characterizes Stew’s studio recordings gave way in concert to a darker, jazzier sound. The show opened with “Bleed,” with Stew fingering a plastic toy horn that he would pick up again from time to time throughout the evening. This was followed by a heavily reworked version of “Re-Hab.” The set included a few new songs — “Speed,” “Curse,” and one about young upscale Brooklyn mothers and their aggressive stroller-pushing habits. They also played many older songs, including “Gary Come Home” (the tune Stew wrote for an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, albeit with a few choice new lyrics), “Bong Song,” “Black Men Ski,” “Ken” (a comic take on the sexual preferences of Barbie’s male companion: “My name’s Ken/and I like men”) and “Kingdom of Drink.” Stew apologized for performing just one number from “Passing Strange,” (“We Just Had Sex”), promising he would do more songs from that show on his next visit to town. He hinted about ongoing negotiations from an upcoming residency here in Chicago.

The main set closed with “Peter Jennings” in a jazzed-up epic version that somehow morphed midway through into a tribute to John Coltrane. For the encore, they did a marvelous version of “The Naked Dutch Painter,” one of Stew’s best compositions. All through the evening, Stew held up his legendary stage patter–very funny riffs on how cold it is in Chicago, on how great it was to having washing machines in their backstage dressing room, on what it was like to be the sole black man at an upscale resort in Aspen.

Stew was in fine voice all night, repeatedly hitting even very high falsetto notes. He showed off some slick guitar work in the last few numbers, as well. Earlier in the evening, he’d done what he later joked was his museum performance piece: playing his guitar by setting it upright in its stand and throwing coins against the strings.

After the show Stew and Heidi came out into the lobby to mingle with the audience. We were able to chat briefly with them. I got to thank them for the special Valentine’s Day song they recorded for my wife in 2006 (Stew offered to make personalized songs as special Valentine’s Day gifts that year, and I took him up on it: by far the best VD gift I’ve ever managed to come up with). Heidi said that they’d met a few of the other Valentine’s Day couples from that year during the current tour.

A new album is due early next year, and they continue to develop new theatrical projects. I’ve written here before that I think Stew is a living national treasure. It was a pleasure to find him that he is also approachable and down-to-earth in person.

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Those Were Indeed The Days

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 13th, 2010

If like me you grew up a Beatlemaniac, the release this month of Come and Get It: The Best of Apple Records, a compilation of recordings by the other artists signed to the Beatles’ indie label Apple is a revelation. We finally get to hear music we’ve been reading about for decades—Jackie Lomax’s “Sour Milk Sea” (1968), written and produced by George Harrison, for example, or the original studio version of Billy Preston’s “That’s The Way God Planned It” (1969), a song we know from the scintillating live performance at The Concert for Bangladesh.

Some of the material is very familiar (Badfinger’s hits, for example, or James’ Taylor’s debut single, “Carolina on My Mind”), but much of it is new to my ears: Trash, Brute Force, Lon & Derrek van Eaton, Doris Troy, etc. And it all starts off with Mary Hopkins’ beloved Klezmer-meets-The-Band smash hit from 1968, “Those Were the Days.”

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Unhealthy Obsession

Posted in J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 10th, 2010

I have about 20,000 songs stored on my I-Pod. A few months ago, I became haunted by the bizarre notion that I should listen to them all at least once: some vague idea about the ethics of ownership, about taking responsibility for music that I’d decided to hoard. I started going out of my way to listen to tracks with a 0 play count, proceeding alphabetically by artist name.

I’d gotten up to K with that method. But I was faltering, because this procedure required me to devote, for example, several days to listening solely to the Beatles or Blur. I’d get bored listening over and over to the same artist. Wasn’t there a better way?

I finally figured it out this past Monday: I’ve created a “Smart Playlist” consisting of all the songs that have zero plays (excluding those from the genres of classical and podcast) and then use the “shuffle songs” setting when I play it. The I-Pod now randomly plays songs from the list and, because I used the “live update” setting, it eliminates them from the collection once they been played. I started out with about 3500 songs in the playlist; that’s down to 3300 at this point.

You can’t imagine how pleased I am with myself over this technological breakthrough. I’m exploring the nether regions of my music collection, skipping around from artist to artist so rapidly that I never find any particular style tedious.

While typing in this entry, I’ve listened too:

“All Night Stand,” The Kinks (bootleg unreleased demo)
「慕情」, Southern All Stars
“Love’s Gonna Walk Out on Me,” Toots and the Maytals
“COLORS,” Utada Hikaru

Four down, 3296 to go…. I’m so excited about this.

It’s kinda sad, really.

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This and That

Posted in Classical,Current Events,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 5th, 2010

It’s been a jumbled week, with little time for arranging thoughts into anything so orderly as sentences.

A week ago Thursday, I made my first visit of the season to Symphony Center to see Jaap van Zweden lead the local favorites in a very fine program of Mahler, Shostakovich, and John Luther Adams. Both Andrew Patner of the Sun-Times and and John von Rhein of the Tribune loved the Shostakovich but had reservations about the Adams and the Mahler, but I heard it the other way around. My usual bad taste, of course.

Adams’ “Dark Waves” was a hypnotic piece, a single sustained wave of sound that develops details of texture and dynamics across its twelve minutes. Adams was in the house and took a bow with the orchestra after the piece. The Mahler consisted of four songs from his “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” in which the composer wears his charming hat, as opposed to his bombastic helmet (think, for example, of the last movement from his Fourth Symphony). Measha Brueggergosman was the guest vocalist, and she performed with grace and wit. Patner and von Rhein complained about her vocal chops, but my only fear was that we might all be blinded: she wore a shiny all-platinum dress and I thought somebody might take a flash picture. The program closed with Shostakovich’s magnificent (and seldom played) Symphony No. 8 in C minor. The local newspaper critics both fall over themselves in their rush to praise the performance, but I thought the long first movement was rather perfunctory. It did come to life in the latter half, though, with particularly brilliant performances from the woodwinds.

I’ll be back to see the Chicago Symphony again in early December, when Pierre Boulez conducts Janáček and Schoenberg: more glorious twentieth-century classical. I can’t wait.

In the meanwhile, out there in the world there appears to have been an election of some sort. Why anyone would hand the keys back to the same people who crashed the car two years ago is a mystery to me, but then again democracy always is a little bit mysterious.

David Byrne, in the meanwhile, is marrying folks in NYC. Stew is out on the road, playing gigs (he’ll be here in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art next week). And Dave Davies makes it painfully clear that the Kinks won’t be reuniting anytime soon.

Older brother Ray, on the other hand, continues touring in Europe. Let me leave you with some fan video from Sunday night in Paris and Monday night in Amsterdam. Here’s hoping next week is a quiet one, for you and me both.

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